How Ukrainians Turn Into Russians

8 February 2012, 14:21

The Ukrainian Week recently wrote about the unprecedentedly fast assimilation of Ukrainians in Russia (see article “A demographic donor”). In the past two decades, the number of people who identify themselves as Ukrainians and their share in Russia’s population has dropped in half. An analysis of the 1989, 2002 and 2010 censuses shows that those who abandoned the foundations of their national identity, particularly their native language, are the first to turn into Russians.

Below is a letter written by a resident of Moscow with a Ukrainian background who reveals the internal motivation and special social context which cause this incredibly high speed of assimilation. Above all, this is the influence of the Russian environment: disrespect for Ukrainian as a funny distortion of Russian; an arrogant attitude to the peoples of the former Russian Empire which makes them conceal their origin; primitive notions about the markers of Ukrainian identity (pork fat, a national costume, etc.) which is based on a stereotypical perception of Ukrainians as a purely ethnic-territorial group whose representatives are “Russian” in all other aspects. Continued residence in an alien linguistic and cultural environment and limited access to Ukrainian-language products are two more contributing factors. Finally, there are many subjective reasons that lead people to abandon their Ukrainian identity, particularly parents' reluctance or inability to teach their children Ukrainian and instil then with a respect for the Ukrainian people.


Denys Dunas

My mother moved from Pyriatyn, Poltava Region, to Moscow when she was 25. My father moved there from the settlement of Chechelnyk, Vinnytsia Region, at 27. I was born and grew up in Moscow and consider myself to be a Muscovite and Russian.

Every summer until I entered the University, I spent time in Ukraine. Fresh fruit and vegetables, swimming in a river, picking apples and feeding piglets were not things that could wow my classmates. Even the story of me falling into a toilet – you know, a typical outhouse standing over a pit – was not very popular in Moscow. I managed to master it quite well during the summer months. Few things can crack up a native Moscow resident as much as a sentence or even a word said in Ukrainian.

I was approaching an age when I was supposed to receive a Russian passport and my grandmother Nina asked me on another trip to Ukraine: “What nationality do you want to have in your passport: Russian or Ukrainian?” I replied: “Of course, Russian! I grew up and live in Moscow.” “Your parents are Ukrainian, and you are a bastard rather than a Muscovite! You are a khokhol!” [a usually derogatory name for Ukrainians. – Transl.] In the end, I got a Russian passport that did not contain the field for nationality.

At one point, I was a vegetarian for an entire year. I broke when my mother brought blood sausage and pork fat from Ukraine. As I devoured these goodies, I argued to myself that blood and fat were not meat and that Muslims were so unfortunate, because they would never know the supreme taste of Ukrainian pork fat with garlic. An understanding that I was no vegetarian but perhaps a little bit Ukrainian came as a hard blow.

My Ukrainian girlfriend recently explained to me that there is a difference between khokhols and Ukrainians. Khokhol is a tag that deprives a person of the right to dignity. I agree, because when I'm called that, I get a little offended. But here, in Moscow, Ukrainian sounds exactly the same as Moldovan or Belarusian – and to some even the same as Tajik. But there is one professor in Moscow State University I know who never misses a chance to call himself a khokhol. Coming from him, it sounds even like a dignified description.

I can see that some peoples, for example Caucasian nations, do show their ethnic origin. On several occasions, I watched Chechens dance lezghinka across the street from the Kremlin. But I have never seen Ukrainians who would dance to a Ukrainian lullaby in the heart of Moscow. Perhaps the binary opposition “Russian-Caucasian” involves more opposition than the dichotomy "Russian-Ukrainian".

I love the sound of the Western Ukrainian vernacular. To me, it sounds beautiful and a little like Polish. But I have never thought about starting to learn it. I wish I could learn English for one. I don't like the “rural” Ukrainian vernacular spoken by my Eastern Ukrainian relatives and my parents when they talk to each other. It sounds like distorted Russian. I asked them to speak to me in Russian or standard Ukrainian (that is what I call the Ukrainian language spoken in Lviv). I have never stopped to think about whether there is a Ukrainian diaspora in Moscow. But even if there were some club to meet Ukrainians, a crafts group or a free varenyky-making master class I would probably not go there. I do not have a habit of choosing interests or friends based on nationality or origin. I would be especially irked if I were forced to go there or view it as my moral duty to respect my ethnic origin.

Licensed DVDs have a language menu that includes Ukrainian. My mother and I were once watching a cartoon about a parrot in Ukrainian, and I liked it. But my mother got a headache. She said she had to strain herself. “But you are Ukrainian,” I noted. “So what? Should I now dress in a national costume, braid my hair peasant-style and walk like that around the apartment? I make borshch and pampushki – that’s enough.”

I think nothing shapes a personality more than social context. But let me repeat that I was born and grew up in Moscow and consider myself to be a Muscovite and Russian. I do not know whether this is right or if it makes sense, but I know one thing: it's natural. I cannot say “I’m Ukrainian” without sounding artificial to myself. When my mother is sick for her motherland, she sighs: “Oh my native Ukraine!” And then she and my father dream about settling there after retirement. But if I do not earn enough money to buy a house in Switzerland, I will pick Ukraine over Moscow, too.

This is Articte sidebar